Social literacy – does ‘karma gaming’ matter?

I have a question for all of you smart people out there. Does the fact that some people ‘game’ karma or rankings or anything you can count in social networks matter?

Here’s the context – I’m doing some work with the Drupal crew and at first blush it seems (perhaps obviously?) that Drupal.org is actually much more of a ‘social’ site than a ‘content’ site, and that many of the social and content issues we need to address might be helped along by making the activity that community members are undertaking visible – which essentially becomes a kind of ‘karma’ (a la Slashdot)

Karma is the sum of your activity on Slashdot. This means posting, moderation, story submissions. It’s just an integer in a database. The tiers are Terrible, Bad, Neutral, Positive, Good, and Excellent.

The obvious objection to this is gaming – that people will behave in a way that will increase their karma which is not necessarily in the best interest of the community at large.

There are a number of ways that you can design karma systems so that they are less likely to be gamed (see again Slashdot):

People like to treat their Slashdot Karma like some sort of video game, with a numeric integer representing their score in the game. People who do this simply are missing the point. The text label is one way we’ve decided to emphasize the point that karma doesn’t matter.

and

Yes. Karma is now capped at “Excellent” This was done to keep people from running up insane karma scores, and then being immune from moderation. Despite some theories to the contrary, the karma cap applies to every account.

And, of course, the well documented removal of the ‘top diggers’ page from Digg is another example of removing the incentive to game karma.

What I wonder about, though, is this:
  • is it just a minority of people who are compelled to have enormous numbers next to their names? 
  • is this minority behaviour *really* disruptive to everyone’s experience of the system?
When I think about my experience of Twitter – I know there are a bunch of people out there who are very interested in having huge lists of followers. I guess it’s an ego thing. For the rest of us though, we get our value from Twitter from a much smaller group of more carefully selected individuals. 
And we’re literate about ‘the numbers’ when evaluating people to include in our network. A common behaviour is to compare the ‘following’ to ‘followers’ numbers – if the ratio is screwed far toward ‘following’ then proceed with caution (or, more likely, don’t follow!)
My gut feeling is that:
  • yes, *some* people will game the system. No system you design will ever stop this.
  • making this gaming visible and traceable (you can see what people have done to achieve their ‘number’ or ranking) means that people can be discerning about the value they place on ‘rankings’
  • if people have high rankings, chance are they’ve been busy/loud in the community – their true value is really on the value of the noise they’ve been making (hopefully good noise)
  • showing rankings in order (a la Top Diggers) should be avoided at all cost.
What do you think?